Beach Chairs on Broadway

By Joan Pasiuk, Bike Walk Twin Cities Program Director

During her recent visit to the Twin Cities, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn brought to life the exciting story of NYC street transformation, including improbably-endearing beach chairs on reclaimed Broadway right-of-way. Sadik-Khan participated in two events on March 30 organized by Transit for Livable Communities and Bike Walk Twin Cities—an afternoon panel cosponsored by the Urban Land Institute and an evening event featuring Street Films. Almost 200 transportation professionals, elected officials, and citizen advocates attended.

The Commissioner was here to celebrate Minneapolis’ membership in the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an organization committed to transportation innovation and synergy. One focus of NACTO is to advance design standards that will work for big cities, a shortcoming of the AASHTO guidelines. Much of the spotlight of the day was on NYC but Minneapolis has plenty of bragging rights in the NACTO family: Sadik-Kahn was hugely envious of the “Marty Sabo bridge” and impressed with the Midtown Greenway, Marquette/2nd Ave busway project, and mayoral leadership.

Some in the audience, including me, were awestruck by Sadik-Kahn’s vivid photos of what can happen when bold vision, political will, technical capacity, and community buy-in align. And even in an audience that knows an interstate bridge can go from a pile of rubble to ribbon-cutting in less than a year, it’s not just what happened – but when. In the “Green Light for Midtown” pilot, Times Square was transformed from gridlock to urban oasis between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The NYDOT also exceeded goals for installing 200 miles of new bike lanes between 2006 and 2009 and is moving ahead with innovative Bus Rapid Transit.

My take-aways from her visit: paint, planning, safety, pilot, yes.

Paint: Not every city improvement requires a bulldozer. In fact, low-cost, low-tech projects using a few cans of paint and orange cones, and oh yes – beach chairs – can be extremely effective. For more about Green Light for Midtown, watch this video.

Planning: But a good paint job can happen only when there has been good upstream work – visioning and planning. NYCDOT projects are birthed in the comprehensive plaNYC, the mayor’s strategy for ensuring that the city will function better with the million new expected residents than it does today. With the backing of this plan, the Commissioner and her staff are able to craft action steps, proposing projects to improve bicycle, bus, walking, ferries, and motor vehicle travel. They take their best proposals to the community in user-friendly renderings and then they listen. NYCDOT’s strategic plan, Sustainable Streets, describes the many initiatives pursued under the umbrella of PlaNYC.

Safety: When Sadik-Kahn and staff listened they  learned that New Yorkers care about safety more than just about anything. Sometimes called the “Commissioner of Parking Removal,” Sadik-Kahn certainly encounters the type of resistance we know here. Because they build in a performance measure to all the projects NYCDOT is able to document safety. What could better counteract opposition: “When we implemented a project just like this in Prospect Heights there was a 50% decrease in pedestrian injury within six months.”

Pilot: If documented safety doesn’t do the job, Sadik-Kahn resorts to the pièce de résistance: let’s just try it. Her job is one big laboratory and as she says, when the project is mostly about paint if something doesn’t work it’s no big deal to go back to what it was.

Yes: “There are manuals written about no,” the Commissioner said. “We are about getting to yes.” NYCDOT has developed a “yes” manual for design—the NYC Street Design Manual, including many of the bicycle innovations on NYC streets.

Sadik-Kahn is a preeminent urban evangelist, citing the role of cities as economic and cultural engines. Transportation, the lifeblood of cities, is where the rubber meets the road for big American cities. I apologize for the mixed metaphors and clichés, but not for my enthusiasm for where NYC, and I hope the Twin Cities, are headed – and fast.

Note: TLC hoped to be able to make available the actual presentation of March 30. The Commissioner’s protocol instead refers all interested to the many resources on the NYCDOT and Streetfilms websites.